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Impact of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan on regional Australia

CHAIR —Welcome. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. We thank you for your submission. Is there any other material that you would like to leave with us, or would you just like to talk to your submission for a short time and then we will ask questions?

Mr J Harris —I was told that I had two minutes, so I will keep it to that.

CHAIR —You can take a little longer than that.

Mr J Harris —The Murray-Darling Basin has provided Australia with a good supply of high-quality produce; this must continue. I should have ‘affordable’ in there; I think I missed it. I am not ready to pay $50 for a tired lettuce from somewhere in Asia where I have to wash off the human excrement that it has been fertilised with in order to eat it. We have been told on many fronts that the science is clear. How can it be clear when successive governments at both state and federal level have been sacking scientists, closing down research stations and downsizing the CSIRO for more than a decade? On that, an article in the paper here says that, at the height of the Victorian floods, there was blue-green algae in Lake Eppalock at Bendigo. We are continually being told that blue-green algae is one of the reasons that we have to have more water running down the river.

What is clear is that we are just coming out of a severe drought. Droughts are often broken with flooding rains. The river system, left unregulated, would dry out completely, away from the mountains, in drought. Very productive irrigation areas have been set up throughout the basin and residents have received adequate stock and domestic water supply because of the infrastructure placed on the river system.

The rest is contentious. Irrigators have made many water-saving improvements. What betterments and benefits have come from the authorities that manage the river system? Is there room for improvement? There have been allegations that more water is lost to illegal diversions than is proposed to be taken from the irrigators; is this true? Can improving administration, stopping illegal diversions, controlling seepage and evaporation solve the problems without cutting back irrigators? Somehow, for their own good as well as for ours, we are going to have to convince city folk that emptying the country of people is not an option.

This inquiry should be focused on the following principles, in priority order: first, stock and domestic use of the river—town livestock, normal domestic use; second, good quality, affordable food, both irrigated and dryland production; third, the irrigation communities, the irrigators and the towns that have developed around them; and that the environment argument be limited to relevant facts only. The process is also causing some degree of stagnation because of the uncertainty. People are not investing in getting on with things—there normally would be such people—because they do not know where they are going. That is all I have prepared and I am happy to answer questions.

CHAIR —Thank you, Jim. Sharman, do you have some questions?

Dr STONE —Obviously, you are aware that in New South Wales there is, through the overall National Water Initiative, money for on-farm water use efficiencies—some grants. They are fairly hard to wend your way through, but there are some grants available. In your area, are you aware of much water use saving on farm that would be possible if there were more assistance with paying for that investment? What is the potential for more water saving, in other words?

Mr J Harris —I am not the right person to ask that of, because I am a dryland grazier and our branch only represents a small number of irrigators. I am sure that there can be improvement; but to be specific about how and so forth, I am not in a position to give any answer.

Dr STONE —Can you tell me to what extent your members themselves are doing what I will call ‘environmental management’, looking after particularly wetlands on their own properties or biodiversity or using some of their stock and domestic water in trying to keep the wetlands or some of the environmental asset in good health? Is that sort of work done in this way?

Mr J Harris —The wetlands get the help that they would normally get in nature, as has happened this year. But we have miles and miles of poly pipe that water our stock now and, with shifting water points and so forth, that helps with the environmental nature—too much crowding around a trough and so forth can denude an area. We try to manage our pastures for biodiversity, because that seems to be very important.

Mr ZAPPIA —Thank you for your submission. You mentioned that there were allegations about illegal take of water, or words to that effect. My question to you is: are you aware of any examples where that is happening and, if you are, how serious a problem is it?

Mr J Harris —I do not know. I am really only basing it on what I have read in the press and what some people say. I certainly have no first-hand knowledge.

CHAIR —On the first page of your submission, you say:

A federal government plan of attack was organised,—

Talking about salinity, prior to the drought—

only for it to be discovered that the predictions of disaster by scientists were 500 per cent out!

Mr J Harris —That happened during the Howard years.

CHAIR —Can you elaborate on what you mean there?

Mr J Harris —During the Howard years, how bad the salinity was only lasted for about six months and then, when they went over the figures again, they discovered that they were that far out in their predictions of how bad the salinity was. There is still a salinity issue; it is an issue that we all still need to address. But the scientists got on to something and went after it, without carefully doing and redoing their figures. When it was forced to be redone, it was realised that we still had the normal salinity problem that we have always had and that this extra disaster was not there. That tends to be the feeling often when government tries to intervene.

CHAIR —You do not think, if we got a series of wet years back again, salinity would come back?

Mr J Harris —No. I do not think salinity ever changed; it was just that the scientists came to a calculation that was not correct. It became a serious issue and they redid the calculations, they decided that it was not as serious as they had made it; they had made a mistake. If you sit and do your household budget and all of a sudden it is $200 out, you go back over it and do the sums again, don’t you? I would say that that happened at that stage. It is not very long ago, really. For those of us getting thin on top, it was not that long ago!

Ms LEY —Can you tell the committee a little bit about the effect of recent government policy concerning national parks and the red gum industry on the town of Balranald, which is on the Murrumbidgee River?

Mr J Harris —The town has suffered. It has been downsized and its business people have difficulty in being competitive. Jobs have been lost. They are worrying about the red gums, but I just wonder whether we are still worrying about the red gums with this water thing, because we have millions and millions of red gums that have come up along the river system that I would refer to as woody weed and now we are trying to get water to water them.

Mr ZAPPIA —I have another question. In your submission, you talk about foreign owned industries owning water. Without naming them, can you give any examples of where that is occurring and to what extent do you believe that it is occurring?

Mr J Harris —I do not know to what extent it is occurring, but a lot of water got transferred into investment schemes.

Mr ZAPPIA —Yes, managed investment schemes.

Mr J Harris —I call them scams, because I do not believe that any of them have ever done any good for anybody except the promoter of the scam. A fair bit of that water ended up with an Indian firm, I understand, that is exporting almonds to India. If it is that widespread, is it in our best interests as Australians?

Mr ZAPPIA —I guess that I am trying to ascertain whether it is widespread.

Mr J Harris —I do not know. That information would all be available to you from the work of ABARES and the Bureau of Statistics and that sort of thing; those figures should all be available.

Dr STONE —You talk about Yanga in your submission. Apparently it was five years ago that that was converted to a national park.

Mr J Harris —Yes.

Dr STONE —Did it have water on it, an irrigation entitlement that was removed in the process of making it a national park?

Mr J Harris —Yes, there was some, but the details I do not know.

Dr STONE —Can you tell us what has happened with Yanga since it has been purchased for a national park, in terms of weed and feral animal management, for example, but also jobs created or tourist visitation numbers?

Mr J Harris —They have lost a lot of jobs from the shearers and the staff that ran it. I think there are about three or four jobs from National Parks, and National Parks do appear to be managing it, but the fuel build-up for the next fire season is a serious worry to those people who live near it.

Ms LEY —I can help you out with the visitor numbers, Sharman. Since the park was purchased in, I think, 2005—towards the end of that year—there have only been 2,000 visitors.

Dr STONE —Was there much water transferred off that property?

Ms LEY —Yes. Part of it was funded from the sale of water.

CHAIR —As there are no further questions, thank you, Jim, for taking the time to come along and for putting a submission together. If there is any other material that you would like to leave with us, please do so.

Mr J Harris —No. Because I am a dryland farmer well to the north, I do not have the firsthand effect of the irrigation. I assume that you have plenty of irrigation farmers who are prepared to tell you how they are being affected.

CHAIR —Okay. Thank you very much for taking the time to come.

Mr J Harris —I will leave that with you.

CHAIR —Thank you, Jim.

Proceedings suspended from 12.52 pm to 1.34 pm